The End of Film (for me)

10.12.11 | Permalink | 2 Comments

I took a serious interest in photography in 1971 when I bought my first 35mm film camera, a Miranda Sensorex.  I can still remember being amazed that I could actually adjust the shutter speed and aperture to suit the conditions — a whole new world of taking pictures was opening up to me.

I took that camera to the Philippines in 1972 when I joined the Peace Corps.  During my service there, I switched to a Konica AutoReflex camera that had the option to automatically set the exposure (a feature that I used exactly once).  Film was sent to Australia for developing, and I received a box of slides back in about two weeks.

My best adventure with 35mm film began when I returned to the U.S. in 1974 and got into Nikon cameras, first with a Nikkormat.  That camera still remains one of my favorite cameras, in memory at least, simply because I got to know it so well, especially how the meter was reading the scene.  Of course, there was no instant feedback regarding exposure, so one had to learn how to make good exposures simply by knowing how to best operate the camera.  Even though exposure bracketing was often recommended, 95% of the time my first exposure turned out to be the correct one, and I threw away the exposures that were 1-stop under and 1-stop over.

I continued with a variety of Nikon cameras and lenses over the years.  The culmination came with one of the best values I’ve ever had in a camera, that being the Nikon F100.  It was a strong, reliable camera with many of the features of Nikon’s top cameras but at a much more reasonable price.  My favorite lens was the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D zoom lens.  While the range of the zoom was limited, the image quality was outstanding, and it was my best walk-around lens.  The 24mm focal length was another favorite, as was the 80-200mm.

When film was to be developed, I drove to Seattle and dropped the rolls off at Ivey-Seright for their 3-hour processing.  I then drove up to REI, parked for free in the garage, went to the book section to select several trail guides or photo books, and settled in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to read and get inspired while my film was being developed. That was heaven.

But heaven didn’t last forever.  Ivey-Searight, like a lot of other local photo processors, went out of business when digital became well established.  REI started charging for parking, and they turned their comfortable “reading room” into the children’s play area.  Life was no longer the same.

For several years I shot film as well as digital.  As film cameras dropped in price, I was able to move up to medium format.  A Pentax 67 was my favorite camera for some time, but the weight of the system became an issue, especially out on mountain trails.  I switched to the Pentax 645NII and a range of zoom lenses, and it was a much-loved camera for many years. Like the Nikon F100, I’ve felt it was one of the best values in film photography:  great quality at a relatively low price.  Along the way, I also tried large format (4×5) photography, and while I liked the quality, the process of getting several images along a trail was slower than I wanted.  In addition, I couldn’t afford $50 to $100 for a drum scan of a single transparency, and scanning on a consumer flatbed scanner seemed to be a terribly weak link that detracted from one of the most significant advantages of large format: image quality.  I gave up large format, tried a medium format rangerfinder in a Mamiya 7II (superb optics, undesirable handling characteristics for me), enjoyed a Hasselblad 501cm and some superb optics for about a year (the square format challenged my vision, something I enjoyed immensely), but finally settled back with the Pentax 645NII.

During this time digital technology evolved at a tremendous rate, and I moved through a series of digital cameras, eventually switching to Canon for their wider array of lenses and somewhat better prices.  Even though digital technology was improving, I still preferred film, especially Fujichrome Velvia (strong colors) and Astia (more neutral colors, wider exposure latitude).

I scanned my film on a Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 scanner.  I had purchased one of the first Nikon 8000 scanners when they were introduced, and it was a great scanner for 35mm and medium format that I enjoyed immensely.

But a ball had started to roll down the hill, and new advances in digital technology seemed to come at the expense of the world of film.  Some films were discontinued, but most important to me was the decline and essential disappearance of 220 format with only 120 remaining.  I have never understood why photographers would want to put in a new roll of film twice as often while out shooting, but 120 was the only format that could be found for the films I liked to use.

While film had a decided advantage over digital for some time when it came to image quality, the evolution of digital technology began to blur the distinction, at least for my eyes. The nail in the coffin came when Nikon ceased the manufacturing of their medium format scanner (which by now had been upgraded to the Super Coolscan 9000).  With this news, I managed to purchase one of the very last 9000 scanners available in the country, thinking at the time that my use of film would continue for many years.

Shortly after I purchased the Nikon 9000 scanner, the reality of film really hit me:  no local labs, 2-week turnaround in getting film developed, no 220 film available for the brands I liked to use, and questionable image-quality superiority to digital.  I also appreciated some of the distinct advantages of digital, which for me included immediate histogram feedback, very rapid “developing” and image availability, and ability to change ISO on the fly.  Another nail in the coffin came when I had the rare chance to purchase a superb medium format digital camera in the form of a Hasselblad H4D-40 and the new 35-90mm zoom lens for much less than the market price at the time.  While the cost was still shockingly high, I felt that if any digital camera could come close to replacing what I had enjoyed in film, it would be this camera.

With the nail firmly driven into the coffin, I sold all of my film cameras and lenses, scanned my remaining transparencies and sold the Nikon 9000 scanner, and acquired a few more Hasselblad H lenses to round out the H4D system.

Today I use primarily the H4D-40 for my landscape photography.  While I haven’t had the camera for very long (at this writing), I’m impressed with its dynamic range as well as the integrated software, Phocus, that is an important part of the system.  I’ll write more on that in the future.  I also continue to use the Canon 1DsMkIII which can take advantage of a much wider range of focal lengths in the lenses, and I’ve acquired a back-up body with a Canon 1DMkIV which I really look forward to using to photograph birds in flight and other fast action.

Film still has a future, and I know I could have used film for the rest of my life if I had really wanted.  The Nikon 9000 scanner would have served me well for the rest of my life. However, I just came to appreciate the image quality and workflow of digital cameras more than that of film cameras.  Despite the popular perception, I have found digital photography to be exceedingly expensive, simply because the technology is changing and improving so rapidly.  It was a cash outlay I was willing to make because of the importance of photography in my life.  I think I’ve reached a plateau in digital photography where I’m going to be satisfied with my current cameras for many years to come (any photographer who reads that last line will certainly smile).

As a tribute to my decades of involvement with film, here is the last transparency I scanned before parting with the scanner.  It’s a photo of a marvelous sunrise near the Sweetgrass Hills in north-central Montana.  The composition is nothing to write home about, but I intend to stitch several photos to make a panorama that I hope will hold more interest.

Sweetgrass Hills Sunrise, Montana — Nikon F100, Fujichrome Velvia 100

Also attached is one of the last photographs I made with film, taken during my last photography trip to the southwest during January-March, 2011.  It was one of my favorite photographs of the entire trip.

Joshua Tree Granite (near Jumbo Rocks Campground) — Hasselblad 501cm, 120mm makro lens, Fujichrome Astia

Thus ends my love affair with film.


Interpretations of Photographs

04.04.11 | Permalink | Comments Off on Interpretations of Photographs

On the photography website of photo.net we recently had a lively discussion regarding a very flowery description of the photographic process written by an unknown person and appearing in a 1966 edition of Life Magazine.  The flowery description and ensuing discussion can be found here.  Of the many posted comments (most aimed at the original poster who commenters assumed, incorrectly, had written the prose himself), one comment in particular stood out in my mind.  It was written by Mark Drutz, who offered the following thought:

“If you are saying that a photograph has a meaning beyond what was intended by the photographer, I agree. A photograph is a bit like an inkblot. We each can see something in it that others, including the person who took it, does not see. We all perceive things, including photographs, through conscious and subconscious filters that affect the way we perceive them.”

I thought that was a very good summary of how we all view photographs, largely at a subconscious level.  There is such a great range of human experience and therefore individual interpretations of the artistic expression embodied in a photograph.  People make different kinds of photographs for different reasons, people view this diversity of photographs from very different points of view, and any number of interpretations or feelings may be generated among viewers by a single photograph.  It’s sometime surprising what thoughts and emotions our photographs may generate in our viewers.

This is yet another reason why I find the world of photography to be such a fascinating as well as challenging endeavor.  It helps to explain why I enjoy devoting my time and energy (and, with the purchase of a new camera system, my limited financial resources) to photography.  I suspect other photographers may feel the same, although it may take a statement like that made by Mark Drutz to bring this to a more conscious level.

Photography locations - Arizona

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

03.31.11 | Permalink | 3 Comments

Chiricahua National Monument Rock Columns. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.

The name “Chiricahua” conjures up images of the wild west in my mind, formed by Saturday matinee westerns when I was a kid back in the 1950s in the small town of Glasgow in northeast Montana. I finally had the chance to hike and photograph in the Chiricahua National Monument in the southeast corner of Arizona during my six-week trip to the southwest in January-February, 2011.

The most prominent feature of the Chiricahua National Monument are the many rock pinnacles and spires that rise up like a dense forest made of stone. To the Chiricahua Apaches, these were the “standing up rocks.” The area began to form 27 million years ago when the nearby Turkey Creek Volcano deposited ash over many hundreds of square miles. The hot ash melted together and formed layers of rock called rhyolite. But there were cracks and joints in these layers of rock, and over millions of years the forces of ice, water, and wind gradually eroded the softer portions, leaving behind the relatively harder columns of rock that we see today.

Neil and Emma Erickson were Swedish immigrants who settled in this area in 1888. Their eldest daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Ed Riggs, opened up the area to tourists by converting the original homestead into a guest ranch. Faraway Ranch, as they called it, operated from 1917 to 1973, and during that time Ed Riggs laid out a marvelous system of trails that were then constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The ranch and surrounding area became a national monument in 1924 to help protect its natural values for all who want to visit. Today, the monument is managed by the National Park Service.

I stayed at the Bonita Canyon campground, just a short distance past the visitor center on the single paved road that enters the park. It was late January, and there were a lot more vacant campsites than occupied sites. While there were small patches of snow in some of the shaded areas and ice on the highest trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, I found the weather to be relatively mild and the days very pleasant.

I hiked to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, nearly 2 miles roundtrip, where a fire lookout is maintained, but I didn’t find the views any more spectacular than could be seen from the trailhead and other roadside viewpoints. Much of the trail was in the shadow of the mountain, and ice was a problem in many areas. The fire lookout was locked, of course, but it was of interest to me because I spent two months on a lookout tower in northwest Montana during the summer of 1967 — perhaps the best summer I’ve ever had.

Sugarloaf Mountain. Note the lookout tower at the top. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.

I stayed a week, and most of my time was spent on the loop trail that begins at Echo Canyon near the end of the road at an elevation of 6780 feet. In my initial walk down the trail, I was struck by how well-designed it was — the trail took a hiker to so many interesting formations and views. It was clearly laid out with great care, and I later learned it was designed by Ed Riggs, and he considered it his life’s greatest achievement.

The views across the small valleys were among the best ways to see the stone columns. Morning light was best for photography.

Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 makro lens.

Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail, a little bit closer. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

Rock Columns, Echo Canyon Trail, closer still. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens.

The Echo Park Canyon trail (1.6 miles long) connects with the Hailstone Trail (0.8 miles long) that travels along the lower reaches of a canyon below the rock columns. The views up the hillside provide a different perspective.

Rock Columns, as seen from Hailstone Trail. Pentax 645NII, 80-160mm lens, Velvia 100 film, scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Rock Columns, as seen from Hailstone Trail. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 lens, three shots stitched in CS4.

The third leg of the loop trail back to the trailhead was, for me, just a walk back to the starting point. It’s unfortunate, I think, that this least interesting portion of the loop trail is named after the trail designer, Ed Riggs. It is 0.7 miles in length, and the elevation gain is modest.

On successive days, I would usually stay on the Echo Park Canyon trail at a very slow pace, going as far as the light would allow. When the sun got too high in the sky for “good” photography, I just turned around and enjoyed the sights from the other direction while looking for compositions that I might try the next day.

I also varied my photography by taking a different camera system each day. I used a Canon digital, a Pentax 645 film camera, and a Hasselblad 501cm square format film camera. It was quite interesting how the camera I had in my hand helped shape my mind’s eye for different compositions. On these trips, I looked for more unusual compositions and the smaller elements that make Chiricahua so unique.

Balanced Rock. Hasselblad 501cm, lens unrecorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

The Grotto. This is space formed at the bases of several rock columns. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f/3.5 T/S lens.

Boulder and Snag. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recoreded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Balanced Rock. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 lens.

Pillar and a Tree Becoming a Snag. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f3.5 T/S lens.

Silhouette and Sun Rays. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

There is a longer trail system that begins at the end of the road, loops through some of the most interesting rock formations in the monument, sends a spur to “Inspiration Point” for a view down the valley to the west, and then continues down through the trees to the Visitor Center. One very nice aspect of this trail and of the National Park Service itself is that a shuttle is provided to take hikers to the top for a one-way, largely downhill trek through these areas. The length of this trail varies from about 7 miles up to about 10 miles, depending on the various trail options. My artificial joints start talking back to me on hikes that exceed about five miles, so I didn’t get to see the sights in this part of the monument.

However, I did set out very early one morning with flashlight in hand to Inspiration Point. I managed to make it to the point just as the sun was cresting the horizon. Unfortunately, the sky was clear blue and the entire scene was fairly bland.  No photos were to be had.  The high point for me happened on the way back. As I looked ahead on the trail, I spotted a Chiricahua Fox Squirrel, a species that is found nowhere else in the world but in these small mountains.

The Chiricahuas are “islands in the sky,” and some species inhabiting them are not able to cross the lowland deserts to reach other high-altitude areas. They have become isolated on these “islands.” Over time, they begin to differentiate genetically (i.e., they evolve), and the lack of genetic exchange eventually leads to the formation of a new species. I didn’t even try for a photograph; just the experience of seeing such a rare animal for a brief moment was enough to make the hike worthwhile.

Even though the sunrise at Inspiration Point was less than inspirational, the next morning I drove to the end of the road at Massai Point before sunrise. I watched the earth’s shadow slowly descend with the first light of the sun following it.

Chiricahua Sunrise. Pentax 645NII, Pentax 200mm SMC-FA lens, Fujichrome Velvia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Another interesting formation that can be seen from this location is the profile of a face, which according to many is the outline of the great Apache warrior-chief Cochise.

Cochise Profile. Pentax 645NII, Pentax 300mm SMC-A lens, Fujichrome Velvia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan scanner.

I also spent a long morning at the Faraway Ranch that was the cherished home of Lillian and Ed Riggs. It is now maintained by the National Park Service as an historic site. On this day I just wandered around the grounds, imagining the decades spent here by the Riggs and their many guests.

Faraway Ranch. Hasselblad 501cm, lens not recorded, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Doors to a Shed. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Fence Post and Barbed Wire. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

Wheelbarrow at the Ready. Hasselblad 501cm, Hasselblad 120mm CFi f/4 lens, Fujichrome Astia film scanned on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 scanner.

A final word about the National Park Service staff at the monument: One of the staff was a photographer, and she was very helpful in suggesting the best places and times for photography (Echo Canyon Trail in the morning!). Other staff I met in the campground, on the trails, at the pullouts, at the Visitor Center, and at the ranch were equally pleasant and helpful. They have recently upgraded the facilities throughout the monument, and that made the stay all the more pleasant.

Photography locations - New Mexico

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

03.26.11 | Permalink | Comments Off on Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Mass Take-off of Snow Geese. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

As a wildlife biologist and landscape photographer, I had long wanted to visit Bosque del Apache (“Woods of the Apache” in Spanish) Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque and near the town of Socorro, New Mexico. This 57,331 acre refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provides habitat for over 375 of birds during the year as well a mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. It is best know as prime wintering habitat for thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many species of ducks, and people “flock” from all over the country between November and mid-February to witness the grand spectacle provided by this great concentration of large birds.

The bird activity is centered in 3800 acres of the Rio Grande floodplain and 9100 acres of actively irrigated farmland and wetlands. Outside this “wet” area, the refuge also contains over 44,000 acres of arid grasslands and foothills.

I drove my pickup and camper to the refuge in mid-January, staying at the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park just on the outskirts of the refuge. I normally photograph landscapes, and landscapes don’t move; bird often do. I was using a Canon 1DsMkIII, which is a great camera for landscapes. The best cameras for photographing birds in flight (BIF) are those that can take a whole bunch of photos in a very short period of time (e.g., 7-10 frames per second). That’s because the position of the birds wings and the spatial relationships of the birds to each other changes very rapidly, and it may be only a very brief instant when all of the factors come together to provide the most interesting or aesthetic photograph. I soon learned that my particular camera wasn’t up to the task of rapid firing. I could squeeze off 3 or 4 shots before the camera would pause to transfer those images to the compact flash card (I was shooting in RAW). Within the Canon lineup, a Canon 7D or 1DMkIV (as of 2/2011) would have been a better choice for photographing BIF. However, some folks were getting great shots with point-and-shoots that they held out as masses of birds were taking off, so one shouldn’t get too hung up on equipment to photograph and enjoy Bosque del Apache.

Much of the photography is concentrated during two periods during the day: in the early morning when the birds (particularly snow geese) take off, and again in the evening when the birds return to the protection of shallow ponds to spend the night.

Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes in Morning Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.

The morning departures of snow geese are often explosive, with thousands of birds suddenly taking off en masse and with resounding calls and beating of wings. Evening returns can sometimes produce similar displays as the birds land, then take off again to wheel around and land again, as if they are debating the best place to stay for the night. Even during the day when large groups of birds gather to feed in the fields, the approach of an eagle or a coyote can cause the birds to suddenly take to the air, as shown in my opening photograph above.

Morning Take-off of Snow Geese. Sandhill cranes are left behind for the moment. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Snow Geese Heading to Distant Fields. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm lens.

Each morning I could see a line of car headlights coming in from Socorro, bringing people to witness and photograph the morning lift-off. However, the refuge is large, and the birds frequently spend the night in different places and in several large groups. If one is fortunate to find a large group of birds, and if the conditions in the sky are good (blood-red clouds are ideal), and if the birds wait long enough for light to fill the sky before they leave, then good photographs may be had. But that is a lot of “ifs.” The same is true of the evening returns; luck plays a role in being at the right place at the right time as the birds return for their evening roost.

Snow geese typically take off and return in large groups. Sandhill cranes, on the other hand, are more independent creatures, and they typically move about in small groups or just a few individuals.

It’s great fun to arrive at the refuge in the pre-dawn hours, listen intently to try to determine where the snow geese might be massed, and to get to that spot in time for the lift-off. It’s also a great time to photograph sandhill cranes in the early morning light.

Sandhill Cranes in Pre-Dawn Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.

Sandhill Cranes Stirring as the Sun Rises. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Sandhill Cranes in Morning Light. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

The morning lift-off of the snow geese is usually over in a matter of minutes. The departure of the cranes extends over a longer period of time, providing greater opportunity to photograph small groups taking to the air.

Two Sandhill Cranes Taking Flight. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

During the day, groups of both species come and go among the fields that are actively managed by refuge personnel to provide food (grain) for the birds. Geese and cranes will not enter a field of standing grain because of the possibility that predators (primarily coyotes, although when I was there a mountain lion was also on the refuge) might be lurking. Therefore, refuge personnel cut just enough grain to supply the birds for a few days, and this is repeated throughout the winter. By growing grain on the refuge, it lessens the impact the wintering birds have on other farming operations in the area.

When snow geese move from one area to another, they often do so in multiple waves. If they are traveling long distances, they can reach great altitudes. The result is a spiraling wave of multiple layers of snow geese descending on a field.

Waves of Snow Geese Descending. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Both species also move about during the day in small groups, and it’s great fun to be stationed at one of the viewing platforms and, like a WWII gunner, try to “pick off” these birds as they fly by.

Snow Geese. A shallow depth of field was used so that only one bird would be clearly defined. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 set at f/4.

Two Sandhill Cranes. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

Four Snow Geese Wheeling Around to Land. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

Sandhill Crane. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

Two Snow Geese Not in Synch. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

I found my two greatest challenges photographing BIF were 1) getting the birds in focus, and 2) having the birds positioned “correctly” in the frame. I had a tendency to put a bird right in the middle of the frame. However, it’s generally better aesthetically if the bird is flying into the frame. If two (or more) birds were flying by as a group, I tried to focus on the lead bird, putting it in the middle with the other(s) follow behind.

At the end of the day, birds drift back to their preferred ponds in groups, with the cranes often coming in singly or in pairs. If the light in the sky is good, it can provide an hour or more of challenging entertainment of photographing the birds.

Snow Geese at the End of the Day. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.

Sandhill Crane on the Downstroke. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Trying to Slow Down. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens.

Cruising In. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Time for Evening Reflection. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

There are many other photo opportunities at Bosque del Apache. I tried to get a photo of returning birds flying across the face of a rising and nearly full moon, but didn’t quite make it. I just missed a diagonal line of about seven snow geese flying across the moon, but I wasn’t quite in position. Still, half of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying.

Please, Just a Little Higher!
Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

Once while watching the geese and cranes feeding, three coyotes wandered out into the field. Now a coyote has no chance of catching a healthy bird in this open environment, and the coyotes know it and the birds know it. I think the coyotes were just feeling playful and wanted to show everyone who was “top dog.” The geese and cranes backed away until they looked like spectators along a football field, with the coyotes trotting down the center toward the goal posts.

Spectators to Mischievous Coyotes. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Eagles and other raptors were plentiful, and they were quite used to people stopping to take their photo.

Raptor Scanning the Fields. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

Canada Geese were present in small numbers, and once I managed to get lucky with the light to make a nice image.

Canada Geese at Sunrise. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

Finally, a brief word about the operations of the refuge. I thought the refuge was wonderfully designed to provide for the birds as well as the people who came to enjoy the birds. The road system was well constructed, the roads allowed for people to stop anywhere without blocking traffic, gaps had been cut into some of the dense vegetation around many of the ponds to allow visual access (this work was done by local photographers volunteering their time), some ponds were more isolated and some roads were seasonally closed to reduce people-pressure on the birds, water was carefully controlled to manage the birds and the vegetation, and as previously mentioned, crops were grown and cut specifically for the waterfowl and cranes. In addition, there were trails into the drier portions of the refuge for people who wanted to hike and see other vistas. Being a former wildlife biologist with a state agency, I was impressed with the Fish & Wildlife Service operations and of the many volunteers who donated their time to make this one of the premier wildlife refuges in the country.

Wide, well-maintained roads with gaps in the vegetation for viewing. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss 50mm f/2 lens.

Irrigation canals and controlled water distribution. Canon 1DsMkIII and Zeiss 50mm f/2 lens.

Numerous viewing decks throughout the wet portion of the refuge. Canon 1DsMkIII and Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Cultivated fields on the refuge to provide food for the birds. Canon 1DsMkIII and Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens.

It was a great time, and I hope to be able to return.

Sunset. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24mm f/3.5 T/S lens.

Photography locations - Utah

Southwest Utah in Winter: Bryce and Zion in January, 2011

03.25.11 | Permalink | Comments Off on Southwest Utah in Winter: Bryce and Zion in January, 2011

Sunrise in Bryce Canyon, January 10, 2011. Temperature was -6 degrees F.
Canon 1DsMkIII, 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

I traveled to southwest Utah (and points beyond) during a 6-week trip in January/February of 2011 to seek new landscapes and warmer temperatures. Wow, minus 6 degrees on my first morning at Bryce! I haven’t experienced cold like that since growing up in Glasgow in eastern Montana. As a kid, temperatures below minus 20 degrees were common every winter. Since moving to Washington (and especially western Washington with the marine influence), I haven’t come close to feeling those kinds of temperatures.

I was traveling in my camper with all the comforts of home, minus the space. I felt so fortunate, though; camping next to me were two young guys in a tent. Sorry, but I’m way past that stage of my life.

I had long wanted to photograph Bryce Canyon with snow. I’ve been to Bryce on several occasions, and the red spires are always, well, inspiring. The multiple spires form a very rugged and beautiful landscape, and I’ve followed the trails throughout these formations. But the combination of red rocks, white snow, and blue skies has always been intriguing, and I was wanting to experience this myself.

I arrived at Bryce mid-afternoon and quickly found a campsite. Only one campground is kept open at that time of year, but there were only a handful of campers. It’s too bad that so many people miss the beauty that challenging weather often brings. I went to Sunset Point as the sun was setting, and then returned to the campsite for the long winter night.

I like to be at a location to begin photographing well before sunrise, and a flashlight is a standard part of my equipment. So it was at Bryce, and I arrived an Sunrise Point in the dark. Unfortunately, I got mixed up with Sunset Point, and I was looking for the landmarks that I had seen the previous evening. I walked around in the dark for about 30 minutes looking for the trailhead, drove around some more, and finally set out on the only trailhead I could find.

When I got to the rim a short distance away, I turned left, confident that I would find the overlook along this trail. I was dressed warmly around my torso, but my feet, legs, hands, and head were not adequately protected from these cold temperatures for long periods of time. I walked along the rim for about 30 minutes, realized I was going in the wrong direction, so I retraced my steps back to where I had turned and continued along the rim in the other direction. By this time I had been walking for about 90 minutes, and light was beginning to creep over the horizon.

Within a short distance I came to Sunrise Point. If I had initially turned right instead of left, I would have easily found the vantage point much sooner. I set up and took some photos of the rock towers prior to sunrise when the light was softer and more evenly distributed across the landscape.

Bryce Canyon Prior to Sunrise. Canon 1DsMkIII, 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

As soon as the sun crests the horizon, the light becomes directional and intense, shadows form, and the contrast is much greater. The resulting image at this moment is shown at the top of this page.

During the winter months, the sun rises much further to the south. As a result, the entire canyon doesn’t fill with light, and the southern part of the canyon remains in shade for quite some time. In the spring when the sun moves northward, the entire basin will catch the first rays of the sun, and this will be repeated again in the fall as the sunrises retreat to the south. While the entire basin filled with light is certainly dramatic, it doesn’t (usually!) have snow, and snow was my goal.

I was amply rewarded for my efforts. The light was beautiful. The red rocks were beautiful. The snow was beautiful. The blue sky with cloud patterns was beautiful. And I was freezing. I took as many pictures as I could, switched to film in the Pentax 645 for some additional photos, and then thought about hiking down the trails for some additional photos. By now I had been out in the cold weather for nearly 3 hours. I realized it was getting difficult to walk and to talk. Any thought of hiking into the canyon was quickly dismissed.

I tried to warm up by the fire at Ruby’s Inn, but finally paid $3 for one of the best showers I’ve had in my life. Even after the shower, I didn’t feel too well for several hours. This was a warning to me, and it should be to others as well, that cold temperatures are nothing to fool with, especially in areas where few people are to be found. I’ve since purchased pac boots, lined pants, warmer gloves, and headgear that will cover my ears, neck, and much of my face. Next time I’ll be more prepared for the cold.

Columns Close-up. Canon 1DsMkIII, 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.


I had driven past the entrance to Zion on my previous trips to Bryce, but I had never turned right to visit this national park.  Wow, what I had been missing.

Zion is a relatively small national park.  It is surrounded by tall peaks and buttes, but most of the human activity is concentrated on the valley floor.  An extensive trail system covers portions of the park, and this is the best way to get away from the crowds and have a more intimate experience with the park.

I entered on the east entrance on Highway 9.  Once past the entrance station, there are several pullouts that offer the first good views of what Zion has to offer.

Zion Butte. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss 50mm Makro, two shots stitched.

The rock formations and surfaces in the area past the entrance station were exceptionally interesting, but relatively few trails can be found in this area. The east rim trail heads north from the entrance station. It is a relatively long trail and eventually connects with other trails on the valley floor. A much shorter and popular trail begins at the east entrance to the tunnel and leads to a dramatic overlook of the Zion valley below. I was anxious to experience the valley in the few hours that remained in the afternoon, so I postponed the overlook trail to the next day.

The 1.1 mile tunnel that takes park visitors to the valley below was completed in 1930. However, it is a relatively narrow tunnel, and large vehicles must travel down the center. For this reason, traffic coming from the other direction is stopped while a large vehicle is in the tunnel, and a $15 fee (as of 2011) is charged to the driver of that monster; I was one such driver. Driving through such a long tunnel is an experience in itself, as the road is anything but straight.

Once I was safely through the tunnel, I continued the numerous switchbacks to the valley floor. Now the sandstone cliffs and rocky peaks towered above me, and I could understand why the park was so popular with visitors.

Zion Craig. Canon 1DsMkIII, 24-70mm f2.8 lens.

I continued north on the main valley road and looked for a trail that I might take into some areas removed from the roadway. But I quickly discovered one of the difficulties of winter in the park: icy trails. The many hikers had turned snow-covered trails to ice, and it was treacherous footing in many sections. With my artificial hips, the thought of slipping and falling on hard ice did not appeal to me, and that greatly limited the trails I was able to attempt.

Despite warning signs that the trail was closed a short distance ahead, I did head out on the Emerald Pools trail. By walking on the edge of the trail, I was able to avoid much of the ice created by previous hikers. The trail eventually came to an overhang, and a small stream above sprayed water across the trail to the slope below. Of course, water and sub-freezing temperatures had created huge amounts of ice here, and this is where the trail had prudently been closed. Not only was the ice several inches thick on the trail and short section of railing that keeps hikers from falling, but I could hear large chunks of ice breaking and falling above. Still, I wanted a better angle for a photo, so I inched around the barricade to a location where I could look back up the trail at the icy conditions.

Icy Trail to Emerald Pools. Canon 1DsMkIII, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Icicles hung down from the overhang. The small ones were photogenic; the large one were dangerous. After getting a few photographs, I quickly retraced my careful steps and left the area.

Icicles Along the Emerald Pools Trail. Canon 1DsMkIII, 70-200mm f/4 lens.

The next day found a completely overcast sky, and that precluded any more photos of the towering cliffs. I drove back up the valley road, imagining what all of the trees lining the North Fork of the Virgin River must look like in the spring, summer, and autumn. I came to the end of the road where, during warmer weather, many hikers continue on up the river through narrow canyons. I was content to explore the area and look for interesting ice patterns in the small pools at the edge of the river.

Ice and Rock Patterns. Canon 1DsMkIII, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro lens.

Because of the overcast skies and my desire to get to Bosque del Apache, I left Zion after only a day and a half, an area in which a person could easily spend a week or more exploring. At least I left knowing what a beautiful place this little valley is and that I would be returning during a spring or fall season.

Red Sandstone Walls of Zion. Canon 1DsMkIII, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.


Digital Manipulation in Photography

12.10.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on Digital Manipulation in Photography

Photography as an art form.
Is photography an art form? That can be debated, but I’m going to accept that most photography, perhaps with the notable exception of news journalism, is a form of art in the same league as painting, sculpture, collage, wood-carving, pottery, neon, jewelry-making, glass-blowing, tattoo-making, and others.

If we accept most photography as an art form, what distinguishes it from the other forms of art? One unique aspect of photography lies in its root words: photo = light, and graphy = writing; photography is writing with light. Light affects a photo-sensitive material or device (usually film or sensor), and this then forms an image (chemically on film and digitally on an electronic recording device and eventually on a computer screen). Both of these are often in turn translated to paper for easier viewing.

Another distinguishing aspect of photography is that it captures a moment, unlike any of the other art forms that don’t concern themselves with a specific moment in time. It is this aspect of photography that the general public understands and appreciates. It’s seen in photographs of family gatherings, children and students in school groups and annual yearbooks, formal portraits, wedding albums, and similar life events and markings of the passage of time. Painting may capture these events as well, but paintings don’t pretend to be an immediate depiction of a specific moment as does a photograph.

A final distinguishing aspect of photography is that, at least initially, it captures a moment in time in a realistic way. The object in front of the film or sensor reflects photons back to the photo-capturing device (nearly always a camera) in a manner that the initial image is a relatively true representation of that object (“relatively” because many things can distort the photons along their path to the film or sensor, and different films can react in different manners to these photons). Film and sensors do have limitations, in that they often can’t capture a broad range of light, and often the range of light being reflected back to the camera is beyond the capabilities of the film or sensor to record. In addition, sometimes light may fall on the film/sensor for several seconds, minutes, or even hours. When the exposure to light is extended in time, events such as movement of the subject are recorded over that period of time. The blur of a speeding car, the silky smoothness of a waterfall, and trails of stars across several hours of a nighttime sky are good examples of a moment that is long enough for the object being recorded to change during that “moment.” Despite these exceptions, photography can be distinguished from other art forms by its relatively realistic initial depiction of whatever was photographed. The exceptions that can be identified don’t wholly negate this particular characteristic of photography.

The decisive moment.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for his photographs that capture the “decisive moment,” that moment when random actions intersect in a single instant to make a photograph that is aesthetically appealing, or that best expresses an emotion, or that embodies the spirit of the place or time. It’s the moment when a scene is at its photographic best, when the light is “just right” and when the compositional elements are “just right.” Cartier-Bresson said that photography is not like painting. He said there is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture — your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Cartier-Bresson said, “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While the decisive moment is often applied to people and the world involving humans, it can be applied to nature and landscape photography as well. Jack Dykinga, a notable large-format landscape photographer, has said that landscape sometimes is all about the decisive moment. It occurs when the light is at the right angle and intensity, when the clouds and wind are just right, and when the components of the environment are perfectly aligned or arranged aesthetically or as the archetypical representative of the subject being photographed.

Sometimes a capture of the decisive moment is a matter of luck, and other times it is the result of careful planning: knowing the season, consulting tide or lunar calendars, knowing where the sun will be at a particular time, looking at the weather forecast, and knowing the landscape from one or many previous visits to a place. Whether by luck or careful planning, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I’ve often said that the key to getting a great photo is a matter of being there.

The death of the decisive moment.
The application of digital manipulation by some photographers is rendering the concept of the “decisive moment” obsolete. No longer do these photographers have to be at the right time and the right place. No longer does the light have to be “just right” or the compositional elements “just right.” No longer is careful planning necessary. No longer do natural objects such as the sun, moon, and clouds have to be in alignment at a decisive moment. Instead, any of the elements that contribute to a decisive moment can be created or altered to be a facsimile of the natural decisive moment.

Rather than directly experiencing the decisive moment with our eyes, we can imagine the decisive moment in our creative minds and use digital software to bring that imagination to life in an image that began with a camera but which owes its existence largely to a computer.

“But is it real?” That’s one of the first and most frequent questions I hear from the general public at art shows or other venues where photography is being displayed. In other words, the public is asking whether the beauty and uniqueness in the photograph is something that was seen and captured with the camera in a decisive moment, or rather if it is something that was created / enhanced with a computer.

Some photographers who engage in extensive digital manipulation argue they are producing art, their altered photographs are artistic expressions, and as such their photographic work is above the question of manipulation.

But as I’ve stated, photography is connected to reality in a way that other forms of art are not. Photography captures the moment, and its initial capture is an authentic representation of that moment.

For me personally, the uncertainties I experienced and medical treatments I received for cancer in the 1970s have made it impossible (thankfully) for me to take the beauty of the natural world for granted. Trying to capture the essence of a natural place through photography enhances my experience of being there. For me personally, the experience comes first, the photography comes second. A photograph must capture and represent the experience: that series of decisive moments I encounter when I’m on the trail, in the forest, walking through the desert, floating down the river, or sitting on the top of a mountain watching the sun and moon come and go.

However, it does not require a life-threatening illness to acquire an appreciation for experiences in the natural world and to value photography as a means of capturing decisive moments. Many landscape photographers share these values, as evidenced by their work and their words.

Consequences of digital manipulation.
Digital manipulation can be done to a degree and in a manner that makes the decisive moment irrelevant and that avoids the experience entirely. Those are two separate issues, and both are important in the discussion of digital manipulation of photographs.

When significant elements are not captured in a decisive moment but instead are created via computer software, the moment didn’t occur. The planning wasn’t necessary. The luck of being in the right place at the right time is immaterial. The authentic representation of the natural world is unimportant. It is these considerations that, in my mind, make the manipulated photograph less than the un-manipulated photograph, even if both photographs look identical. In other words, the process is just as important as the outcome. Whether the photograph “works” is not enough; the process of obtaining the photograph is part of that photograph.

I’ve been trying for more than five years to capture a nearly full-moon rising above Mount Rainier. From my particular vantage point, that happens only twice each year. Given western Washington’s notorious cloud cover in the spring and fall when these alignments of the moon and mountain occur, I have not yet been successful (although I came close once). However, I could create this photo digitally. I could take a photo of the mountain on a relatively clear evening just as the sun is setting, and then capture the moon on a different evening as it is rising above the horizon. I could then paste the moon into the photo of the mountain, and if I’m sufficiently skillful with my manipulation software, a viewer would have a very difficult task of detecting the composite photo.

However, in my mind, and in the minds of many other photographers as well as non-photographers, there is a difference between the two photos. One is an authentic capture of a decisive moment, while the other is not. One is the result of careful planning, while the other is not. One is the result of good fortune, while the other is not. One is the result of being at the right place at the right time, while the other is not.

Of great importance to me is the fact that one is the outcome of a significant experience in the natural world, while the other is not. One photo occurred as I was witnessing a rare event of a full moon rising above Mount Rainier on a cloudless evening, while the other photo occurred as I was sitting in front of a computer. That the photo “works” (i.e., is aesthetically pleasing, dramatic, strikingly beautiful, or has a “wow” factor) is not enough, or at least it’s not the whole story. A photo that was captured through the pain and long process often required for a wonderful photo will always, in my mind, be superior to the “same” photo (“same” being defined as looking similar on paper or the computer screen) that was created through digital manipulation. Creating a photograph is not the same as capturing a photograph.

At a point that’s sometimes hard to define, a manipulated photograph enters the realm of digital alterations and digital art. Digital alterations can be an interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking aspect of photography; I fully support it as a relatively new art form. While the division between the two realms is difficult to define, and despite the fact that much past and current landscape photography involves manipulation to a degree, I contend there is a difference between landscape photography and digital alterations. When the two are treated as equal via the attitude that art is art and all photography is simply artistic expression, then manipulated photography degrades the traditional realm of landscape photography. We know degradation is happening when the first question asked regarding an outstanding landscape photograph by members of the general public at a photography exhibit is, “Is it real?”

The only reason this question is asked is because we all know that some photographs were largely created in a computer, while other photographs were captured while experiencing a decisive moment in nature. In the minds of many, this is a significant difference.

On being different through digital manipulation.
I don’t understand how one can take a relatively mundane, everyday shot of a landscape and jazz it up by adding a single, odd color to the sky (say, purple or green), thereby creating something very unusual, and suddenly that mundane photo becomes a striking, outstanding, or exceptional manipulated photo that receives high praise from some viewers. Similarly, photographs of intertidal rocks covered with bright, neon-green algae on the shadow side of a sun that is resting on the horizon often receive praises of “great color!” It’s as if we have become jaded with “regular” landscape photography, as if the real world has become so common that it’s boring, and only by making this “regular” landscape something that it isn’t can we once again become interested in it.

I think that’s sad. There are many aesthetically interesting views of nature and natural objects as they really exist. Sometimes it’s a challenge to find them and to frame them in an interesting way, but that’s one of the joys of photography. Taking a shortcut by simply creating something that doesn’t really exist and has therefore not been seen before and letting that be the criteria by which to judge the value of an image misses, in my opinion, the point and value of landscape photography.

Being different is not the same as being good, despite what may be a person’s jaded interest in the natural world. Really good landscape photography captures the decisive moment…. that moment when composition, light, and subject all come together. It’s difficult, and it’s rare. Do we really think we can create decisive moments at will simply by pushing software slider? In my opinion, all we end up with is a caricature of a landscape.

Finding the balance.
Nearly all digital photographs require further processing. If they were captured as jpegs, then the camera has already done a lot of the processing. If they were captured as RAW files, then processing and sharpening are required with software.

Knowing where to draw the line regarding the degree of processing is terribly difficult, especially if a photographer is posting a photo for public viewing and feedback. We seem to have the notion that if a little bit is good, then more will be even that much better. And when “more” is so easy to do (just push a slider, or just enter a new number in the saturation level), it’s even more tempting to apply.

But just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Finding the balance in digital processing when so much is so easy is key in this new age of using computers in the workflow of bringing information contained in a camera’s sensor or in a scanned image to a printed photograph.

New language is needed.
Often, our language does not keep pace with the way in which our culture and technology change. This has happened in photography. What we need now is a new or expanded concept regarding photography. We simply have not incorporated into our language appropriate concepts that relate to what we see in photographs that have come into being by very different processes. Digital manipulation offers vastly more and different capabilities than traditional darkroom manipulation. This means that digital processing cannot be characterized merely as the “digital darkroom,” implying that digital manipulation is no different than what photographers in previous decades did in their chemically based darkrooms.

What is being produced when a photograph is significantly manipulated is not a photograph but rather digital art or computer art. It may have started with a regular photograph, but at some point it enters a very new realm, one that is so new that there hasn’t yet developed commonly accepted language and standards. However, the lack of language and standards does not prevent me from recognizing that a photograph that relies primarily on a computer for its existence is not the same as a photograph that relies primarily on a camera for its existence.

Photography is an old word being used to describe something new. It isn’t the right word for this new, computer-based process, and we have not found the right words to define and describe it. This is where much of the controversy regarding digital manipulation arises. The word “photography” now means something different to different people. If we had a new language, one that incorporates this new form of photography and this new form of art, much of the current controversy would disappear. But the evolution of new language can be a difficult process, especially when technological change in photography has been rapid and when some of these changes can minimally be likened to traditional darkroom practices of the past (dodging, burning, alteration of tones, changing development routines, etc.).

It’s also difficult to develop a new language when many photographers don’t see a need for a new language. For those photographers, all that matters is the outcome, or whether the image “works.” To them, the concept of the decisive moment is irrelevant, and the idea of experiencing that which is photographed is unimportant. When these photographers remark on a manipulated photograph, a photograph that has come into being through the computer, by saying “nice shot,” they are in error. They really should be saying, “Nice computer skills,” or, at the very least, “Nice shot and nice computer skills.” However, that language and that attitude have not yet developed, and the question, “Is it real?” continues to be asked. As a result, traditional landscape photography based on capturing decisive moments is suffering from these false look-alikes of digitally manipulated images because they can’t be trusted to be real representation of an actual experience.


“A photograph is not created by a photographer. What he does is just to open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.”
Ferdinando Scianna, Magnum photographer

Photography locations - Oregon

Photography in the Columbia River Gorge

11.14.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on Photography in the Columbia River Gorge

Mother Nature spent a lot of time and effort making the Columbia River Gorge so photographers could come away with some great photographs. Volcanic eruptions over millions of years ago created lava flows several miles thick in this area. During the Ice Age some 15,000 years ago, a huge ice dam 2500 feet high blocked the Clark Fork River at present-day Lake Pend Oreille, creating ancient Lake Missoula that backed up all the way to — you guessed it — modern-day Missoula, Montana. This ice dam broke and created a flood that would give FEMA managers nightmares. Imagine a wall of water up to 500 feet tall and moving up to 80 miles per hour, draining a lake that was up to 2000 feet deep and covering 3000 square miles, creating a flow that was 10 times the combined flow of all of the rivers in the world. Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job! Imagine this happening not just once, but perhaps a hundred times, each time draining Lake Missoula within a week. These repeated floods helped shape the present-day Columbia River Gorge.

If you want to read more about the Ice Age floods and the remarkable geologist, J. Harlan Bretz, who for 30 years pieced together the puzzle and won his argument against the scientific establishment of his time regarding the origins of the geological features created by the floods in Washington and Oregon, I recommend three books: “Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood,” by John Soennichsen; “On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods,” by Bruce Bjornstad; and “Cataclysms on the Columbia,” by John Allen and Marjorie Burns.

I’ve sampled only a small portion of the Columbia River Gorge on several excursions. I’ve been guided on my hikes by the book, “Hiking the Columbia River Gorge” by Russ Schneider. I’ve begun my visits with a trip to the top of Larch Mountain, located east of Corbett off exit 17 from I-84. I’ve been to Larch Mountain twice, but I have yet to take a single photo from the overlook. I was there for the first time on a Friday night when several groups of teenagers were evidently recovering from the tremendous pressures of high school. After enduring their partying long into the night, I decided to take my camper further down the road for a few hours of sleep. I was there again on Veterans’ Day (2010), but there was snow at the top with many warning signs about weather, it was 37 degrees at 4:00 p.m., and wet weather was heading in from the Pacific. I didn’t have enough supplies in the camper to last the winter, so again I elected to spend the night further down the hill. “They say” the view is tremendous, and one photographer I met on photo.net said it was his favorite place for photography. Some day I’ll make it.

A good place for the first photos is from the Women’s Forum Overlook; check out this site for locations.  The quality of photos from here is entirely dependent on the weather, because that’s basically what’s being photographed: weather. At the beginning of the day, one might witness a beautiful sunrise, or it may be socked in with fog. I got a taste of the former on a hazy day when I could see Vista House and Beacon Rock in the far background:

Vista House and Beacon Rock, looking east from Women’s Forum viewpoint. 500mm f/4 lens

I experienced the latter during my last trip when extensive fog and low clouds blanketed the gorge:

Columbia Gorge B&W, looking west.  300mm f/2.8 lens

From the Women’s Forum viewpoint, the fog ebbed and flowed, raised and lowered, creating different compositions as it changed. I spent nearly two hours photographing distant landforms as well as nearby trees as the influence of the fog changed:

Washington State side of the Columbia Gorge, B&W. 300mm f/2.8 lens
Emerging Landforms. 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 200mm
Trees in Fog I, B&W. 300mm f/2.8 lens
Trees in Fog II. 300mm f/2.8 lens
Trees in Fog III. 300mm f/2.8 lens
Tree Skeletons in Fog, B&W (Nik software conversion). Zeiss ZE 21mm lens

From the Vista House itself, one can get a similar view from a somewhat lower elevation. On a previous trip, I was able to witness the sunrise:

Sunrise from Vista House, Columbia Gorge looking east

My photography in the Columbia Gorge has been limited to the autumn. The best times for fall color are at the end of October and the beginning of November. The bigleaf maples and tall overstory are the first to turn color, followed by the understory of vine maple and other deciduous shrubs. My calendar notes say the autumn color was excellent on 10/28/06 but past its peak on 10/28/07; it depends on the year.

Continuing on the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway as it descends to the bottom, the first falls one encounters is Latourell Falls, a short hike from the roadway. I chose to photograph the falls through the limbs of the trees, trying a horizontal as well as vertical aspect; which is best is in the eye of the beholder, although I can make an aesthetic argument for either:

Latourell Falls, horizontal. 135mm f/2 lens
Latourell Falls, vertical. 70-200mm lens @ 135mm. No, I have no idea why I switched lenses!

Further down the road is Wahkeena Falls. The stream flows under the highway, so photographs up toward the falls are possible from the low bridge. I chose two focal lengths: a 24mm (with Canon’s tilt/shift lens) and a slightly longer 43mm on Canon’s 24-70mm zoom:

Stream from Wahkeena Falls, 24mm T/S lens
Stream from Wahkeena Falls, 24-70mm @ 43mm

Continuing on, Bridal Veil Falls is a short hike down, but involving some concrete stairs on the way. A bridge crosses the stream, and here photos can be gotten of the stream and the point of entry of the falls (coming in on the right), marked by a very large, fern-covered boulder. A short distance further the trail ends at a viewing platform that looks straight on at the falls; I chose to use a young maple to frame the falls:

Bridal Veil Falls; note sword ferns still flattened by winter weather (photo taken in February). 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 200mm
Bridal Veil Falls, November 12. Zeiss ZE 50mm makro lens

The most famous and popular of the waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge is Multnomah Falls. Due to the crowds, I usually don’t stop (except to let large groups of people across the road). However, I did get my token photo early one foggy morning in the autumn:

Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, 17-40mm lens @ 28mm

Horsetail Falls plunges into its pool right beside the roadway. The biggest hazard is getting run over by other photographers and families out for a Sunday drive (even if it’s not Sunday):

Horsetail Falls, 10/27, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 35mm

The trail to Triple Falls starts in this area, but I enjoyed photographing the trail more than the falls; dappled sunlight was the attraction:

Trail to Triple Falls, 10/27, 24-70mm lens @ 70mm

My favorite hike (so far) is the trail to Elowah Falls, which begins at Ainsworth State Park just before the historic highway merges with frantic traffic on I-84. The gentle trail winds through a relatively young forest, and then drops down to the base of the falls. Shown here are two photos of sections of the trail, taken in different years and with different media (film and sensors). That the colors don’t exactly match may be due to several factors: different moisture content in the environment, film versus digital, and most importantly, different processing of the digital and scanned photos. It’s a real challenge trying to remember just what the place that you photographed several days or weeks earlier really looked like. That’s one of the biggest problems I have when trying to faithfully reproduce the scene that I experienced.

Elowah Falls Trail, digital; 35mm lens
Elowah Falls Trail, Velvia film; Mamiya 7II

In the fall, before the rains come in earnest, many of the falls slow to a trickle. Such was the case with Elowah Falls barely able to keep one boulder wet. However, the surrounding foliage was most impressive, especially in light fog:

Elowah Falls on the Rocks, 70-200 f/2.8 lens @ 108mm
Autumn Trees at Elowah Falls, 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 85mm

I ended this November, 2010, trip by continuing on to Walla Walla in the late afternoon. Zipping along I-84 towards Biggs, I was captivated by the forms of the hills on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Once I reach Biggs, I doubled back on an access road that paralleled the freeway, and I was able to get my last photo of the Columbia Gorge. Many of my photos were taken on film, and those will take time to have processed before I’m able to post them.

Columbia River Hills in Washington State, 70-200mm f/4 lens @ 85mm


Where Should a Landscape Photographer Live?

10.23.10 | Permalink | 2 Comments

I lived in Olympia, located at the southern end of Puget Sound in western Washington, for many years when I worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Olympia has a number of great photographic opportunities nearby. These include Mount Rainier (2 hours away), several creek drainages on the east side of the Olympics (beginning 45 minutes away), Pacific Ocean beaches (beginning about 2 hours away), the Hoh Rainforest (2.5 hours away), Second Beach and Rialto Beach (about 3 hours away), trails in the North Cascades (about 3.5 hours away), Mount St. Helens (about 2 hours away), the Columbia Gorge (about 3 hours away), the varied terrain and basalt cliffs of eastern Washington (beginning about 3 hours away), and many other areas I haven’t mentioned.

Unfortunately, western Washington is also known for its winter rain, which arrives in October and doesn’t leave until May or June (at least that’s what it felt like to me). While there may be some storms that come in off the Pacific and leave large amounts of rain, much of the rain in western Washington comes in the form of a light sprinkle that might go on for days or even weeks. Bad weather often creates great photographic opportunities, but those are not as appealing when one is struggling to keep cameras and lenses dry. Dark, gray days that last for weeks before a glimmer of sun is seen can weigh on a person.

When I retired in 2008, I decided I had had enough of the rain, and I wanted to settle down in an area where the word “rain” was heard much less. I went to high school and college in Walla Walla, located in the extreme southeast corner of Washington, and that’s the community I chose.

The weather in Walla Walla is absolutely wonderful: hot and dry in the summer, perfect t-shirt weather in the spring and fall, and cold with occasional snow in the winter. It just never seems to rain. When it does, the rain often comes at night and then quickly leaves. I enjoy that aspect of eastern Washington immensely.

But Walla Walla is also surrounded by wheat fields and seemingly little else. I’ve gotten some great photos of rolling, frost-covered, fog-shrouded hills in the winter, and beautiful, green fields in the spring (especially in the Palouse region located about 1.5 hours north). I’ve discovered some cemeteries of the early pioneers, and the wheat harvest has big machines combining the hillsides, so there are possibilities for some human-related landscape photography as well. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve run out of interesting places to photograph after having been here only a year, and I keep returning to the same landscapes.

I miss the diversity I had in western Washington. For months I’ve been struggling with a single question: Is the amount of winter rain in western Washington worth tolerating so that I can have many places close by where photography has been so enjoyable, or do I live in the wonderful weather of eastern Washington and save my photography for extended, multi-day or even multi-week trips to interesting locations (something I can do now that I’m retired)?

I don’t yet have an answer, and the slow economy and poor housing market have further reduced my opportunity to make a change if that’s what I choose. Perhaps another year will help shine a brighter light on the best place for a landscape photographer like me to live.

Photography locations - Washington

Photo Trip to Puget Sound, October, 2010

10.23.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on Photo Trip to Puget Sound, October, 2010

I just returned from an early-October trip to Puget Sound. Having moved from Olympia at the southern end of Puget Sound a year ago, it was wonderful to be back in some of my favorite areas. Because it was early October, color was good in some areas but a little early in others. My first destination was Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park, as it was scheduled to close for the winter in about a week.

I wanted some photographs that were a little different than those I’ve taken in the past at Sunrise, so I was on the trail in the early-morning darkness. A flashlight and ignorance about the possibility of bears or mountain lions were all that were required.

The first morning had clear skies. The very early light, especially light that hasn’t really shown up on the horizon (at least what can be seen), still illuminates the white top of Rainier. It’s especially nice in those early hours because the sky remains a dark, blue-black color that contrasts so nicely with Rainier. As the sun rises, stars begin to wink out, and the sky gradually acquires more blue and less contrast with the mountain. It’s a wonderful time of day, but one has to get up early to enjoy it.

Mount Rainier in the Pre-Dawn Hours

As the morning continued, I looked over my shoulder and saw a very thin crescent moon rising ahead of the sun. This was the day before a New Moon. I walked back down the trail to find a good foreground composition that framed the crescent moon. An outline of the entire moon can barely be distinguished.

Crescent Moon Rising Ahead of the Morning Sun

I tried this again the second morning (having slept in my camper in the parking lot), but clouds had come over and dashed my chances for a repeat of the previous morning but at an even earlier hour. Nevertheless, the clouds and other dark forms surrounding the peak made for great long exposures and compositions that are less frequently photographed.

Mount Rainier Before Dawn

The forecast was for rain and snow, and I didn’t want to be driving on icy mountain roads, so I left Rainier and continued on to Lake Quinault and Kestner Creek on the Olympic Peninsula. Kestner Creek is a favorite area, especially in the spring when the ferns have nearly finished uncoiling, and again in the fall when the leaves have fallen. I’m always looking for aesthetically pleasing compositions amid the tangle of moss-draped limbs of the old maple that flourish there.

Moss-Draped Maple at Kestner Creek, Olympic National Forest

A herd of elk reside in this area. They often congregate in the large, grassy area in front of the ranger station on the north side of the lake (where the Kestner Creek nature trail is located). One one trip I had watched them in the very early hours, and as the sun came up they wandered slowly into the forest. When I was on the nature trail, the entire herd ran about 50 feet in front of me, splashed through the wetland, and then stopped on the other side to look back at me as if to say, “We dare you to walk through that water to get to us.”

On this trip, the elk came out in the evening. I just drove a short distance down the entrance road, parked, rolled down the window, and rested my 500mm lens on a sweatshirt draped over the open window. I probably could have gotten out and set up the tripod, but I didn’t want to take the chance of spooking the elk (although they are quite used to people). There were three bulls that were very interested in the cows, but the females would have nothing to do with them. I watched and photographed for about an hour. It was dark enough that it was difficult to get the shutter speed I wanted, even at ISO 800. Of the photos I took, I liked the bull elk walking in front of an old maple; relative age was something the two had in common.

Bull Elk at Kestner Creek, Olympic National Forest

After leaving the Lake Quinault area, I traveled to Second Beach and camped in the small parking lot that night. I was up at 3:30 a.m. and on the trail by 4:15, hoping to get some very early, pre-dawn photographs as I had done at Rainier. It’s only a 0.7 mile walk from the trailhead through the forest to the beach, but it was pitch black at that time of night. At the beach, the trail ends at a very large pile of drift logs that have to be negotiated to reach the sand. Doing this at night when frost or dew covers the logs can be hazardous. Whenever I’m alone (which is quite often), I take extra precautions to get from point A to point B safely. Once on the sand, it was so dark that I could hear but not see the surf, stars were still in the sky, and I could barely see the outline of the offshore rocks. The 30-second exposures that I took allowed more light and showed more detail than I could see with my eyes. The trick is to allow enough light to make a photograph, but not so much light that night is turned into day.

Crying Lady Rock at Night, Second Beach, Olympic National Park

As the dawn progressed, the sun cast a pink color to the clouds, and a long exposure showed some movement in the clouds.

Pink Clouds in the Light of Dawn, Second Beach, Olympic National Park

After the morning at Second Beach, I drove a short distance to Rialto Beach for sunset. I think photography at Rialto is best for the trees adjacent to the beach, especially at sunset, but I enjoyed the setting sun behind a large thunderhead on the distant horizon. The longest lens I had with me was a 70-200mm with a 1.4 multiplier. A 300mm or 500mm might have been better, but perhaps this broad perspective has its own merits.

Sun Setting Behind a Distant Thunderhead, Rialto Beach

On the way back to eastern Washington, I drove again through Mount Rainier National Park, but the best colors were not yet revealing themselves. I continued over Chinook Pass, where the cottonwoods were bright yellow (and very photogenic) but the larches were just a greenish-yellow, still too early for their equally bright yellow color. That usually comes toward the end of October. That’s another trip.

Photographic subjects

After the Harvest

09.24.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on After the Harvest

Photography in eastern Washington is especially popular in the spring when a patchwork of wheat fields turns various shades of green and yellow, while fallow fields remain brown. Watercourses, lone trees or small clumps of trees, and farmhouses dot the landscape and break up the grid patterns of the fields. Over all of this the undulating topography gives rise to highlights and shadows, especially when the sun is low on the horizon. This is a great time for photography, and Steptoe Butte is justifiably famous for the perspective it provides over the Palouse, perhaps the best-known area for growing wheat in Washington State.

As spring turns to summer, the colors become a more uniform gold, and in August the harvest begins. Fleets of combines and trucks roll over the hills, squadrons of raptors circle overhead looking for an easy meal of displaced mice and voles, and the grain is removed in a matter of weeks.

So what does a photographer do when the waves of grain are reduced to stubble? This was my first season of harvest, and although I initially despaired over the change brought about by the harvest, I quickly found another subject to photograph in the fields: the spoils. Combines and truck had scoured every inch of the planted landscape, and they left trails. Patterns in the stubble. Sometimes these patterns were chaotic and not very appealing, but in other areas I found simple to semi-abstract patterns that had appeal to me as something to photograph. Sometimes clouds in the sky complimented the patterns on the ground, and those were special days to be out with a camera. Late August and early September became a season to look for patterns across the harvested landscape.

Departure  The zig-zag of several tracks gave me a vision of  a race up the hillside to be the first to launch off into the unknown.  The appearance of a single cloud that filled the blue space really made this photo for me. [Yes, this is a pre-harvest photo, but I liked it so much I wanted to include it here.]

Bat Clouds. High cirrus clouds form a bat-like appearance over a bright, harvested hillside. The brightness is due, I believe, to the shiny cuticle that remains on the outside of each segment of wheat stubble. At some angles to the sun, portions of the field can appear to be white, and I don’t find this to be very appealing; I usually try to add a tint of yellow back into those areas.

Furrowed Hills Intersecting hills with different harvest patterns make for a nice visual contrast.

Cirrus and Furrows Wispy cirrus clouds contrast with a heavily furrowed hillside. All of these had to be photographed from an established roadway to respect private property rights. There is always a concern of fires being started in the dry stubble (as well as in the wheat fields just prior to harvest) by hot exhaust pipes, sparks, or other human sources, so I did not trespass on any portions of a field.

Duet The regular turnings of trucks or combines lets the field become a dance floor and the tracks have recorded the dance. A deer trail can be seen going nearly straight up the hillside.

Contrarian The long diagonal of a truck that negotiated a hillside leaves a track that goes against the grain, which in my mind was contrarian in nature — hence, the title. Part of the fun of finding these patterns is identifying emotions, actions, or other human attributes in the patterns, much as we lie on a hillside and see shapes of animals, buildings, and such in the clouds drifting overhead.

Brave vs Timid One truck went on while another turned around (perhaps to empty a combine back up the hill). This conjured up a picture of a “brave” truck continuing on while a “timid” truck turned back.

Wandering Track Some tracks crossed the soft earth of a fallow field, as this one looking like it didn’t quite know where to go.

Harvested Ridges Strong directional light and a rolling topography can create an interesting landscape in the remains of a harvested field.

Corduroy Landscape The harvest patterns of the hillside in the foreground reminded me of corduroy fabric.

Former Waves of Grain A rolling topography, telephoto lens to compress the view, and areas of green beginning to grow along the harvested rows make for interesting patterns in the landscape.

I was amazed at how quickly these hillsides lose these features. Some hillsides are disced to return the stubble to the earth, others are simply beaten flat by a process that I don’t understand, and still other hillsides take on new growth because the weather at this time of year is still warm and rains occasionally sweep the landscape. The search for patterns in the remains of the harvest, like the harvest itself, has to be done relatively quickly. However, before too long the fields will be planted (more patterns) and new plants will begin to emerge (still more patterns), and the process never stops. A photographer has a good part of eastern Washington (and many other states as well) to be looking for these abstracts and patterns in fields that are planted and harvested.

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